Improve your diet to jump-start your path to optimum mental health.
Feeling blue? You’re not alone.
Many people struggle with depression. This fact is reflected in pharmaceutical drug sales—today, one in six adults is on or has taken some type of psychiatric drug. These drugs are usually prescribed with the intent of correcting what many doctors believe to be a root cause of depression: a chemical imbalance in the brain. But others are refuting this theory, offering a new approach that asks whether depression originates not in our brains, but on our plates.
This burgeoning field of research, called nutritional psychiatry, is actively exploring the link between diet and depression. We’ve known for some time that what you eat is closely linked to your mental state. But a recently published randomized control trial has offered evidence that cleaning up your diet may actually lift your spirits.
The small study, dubbed the SMILES trial, involved patients who both suffered from clinical depression and consumed lots of junk food. Half of the 67 patients were enrolled to a diet that added fresh vegetables, fish, extra-virgin olive oil and higher-quality meats. The other half continued with standard care. At the end of three months, the group who cleaned up their diets saw major improvements on a common depression scale. By eating better, their depression symptoms improved on average by about 11 points, and roughly a third of them had scores so low that they no longer met the clinical criteria for depression. Meanwhile, control group members improved their scores by only about four points on average. Just two of them (or 8 percent) achieved remission.
One of the proposed mechanisms by which diet may improve mood is through its impact on your gut. Often referred to as the second brain, your gastrointestinal tract houses trillions of bacterial cells. These microbes have the potential to modulate health in powerful ways, though admittedly, we are at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding just how. Nonetheless, microbes produce powerful chemicals, including many vitamins, which then get absorbed into the bloodstream. Many of these chemicals are beneficial, such as butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid studied for its anti-inflammatory and brain-fortifying effects. But this ability also swings in the other direction: Certain inflammatory bacterial components are also able to enter circulation, if we fail to mind the needs of our intestinal immigrants.
As illustrated in the trial above, good things seem to happen when we consume more vegetables and less processed foods, in part because vegetables provide fiber that our beneficial bacteria eat up, churning out goodies like butyrate. Processed foods on the other hand, due to the refined, pulverized grains from which they’re made, as well as the usual chemical additives, drive inflammation. This heightened immune response may be causally related to symptoms of depression.
With so many people using prescription drugs to treat mental health, these kinds of insights are sorely needed now more than ever. And while depression is a multifaceted condition, likely unique for every individual, it isn’t hard to fathom that our moods, like so many other aspects of our health, have become victims to the modern world.
Max’s 10 Genius Foods
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Dark chocolate
- Dark leafy greens
- Grass-fed beef
- Wild salmon
Brain-Boosting Raw Chocolate
Dark chocolate has been in the research journals a lot of late for its cognition-boosting effects. To construct a sugar-free recipe, I enlisted my good friend Tero Isokauppila. Tero is the founder of the mushroom company Four Sigmatic, but he’s also one of the most knowledgeable people I know on cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate.
What you’ll need:
1 cup finely chopped cacao butter
1 cup extra-virgin coconut oil
2 tablespoons sugar-free sweetener of choice (I recommend monk fruit,
erythritol, or stevia)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla powder
Pinch of sea salt
3 packets Four Sigmatic Lion’s Mane Elixir (or 1 heaping teaspoon of lion’s
mane extract), optional
1 cup unsweetened raw cacao powder, plus more if needed
What to do:
- Put the cacao butter in a double boiler or heatproof bowl set over a pan
of just-simmering water (make sure the bowl doesn’t touch the water and
keep it over low heat; this is important for preserving the enzymes and
brain-nourishing properties of the cacao). Stir until completely melted.
Add the coconut oil and use a whisk or milk frother to combine until the
fats are emulsified. Add the sweetener, vanilla powder, salt and lion’s
mane, if using. Whisk again to combine.
- Slowly add the cacao powder to the mixture until it reaches the consistency
of thick cream, adding more if needed.
- Pour the mixture into ice cube trays and place in the freezer for 30 to 60
minutes to harden. Let them soften for 5 to 10 minutes after taking them out of the freezer before serving.
(From the book GENIUS FOODS: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life by Max Lugavere. Copyright © 2018 by Max Lugavere. Published on March 3, 2018 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.)
Max Lugavere is a filmmaker, health and science journalist and brain food expert. His latest book, Genius Food: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life, is a comprehensive guide to brain optimization.